The last casualty of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend...

Last week, historians and scholars observed the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, the bloody culmination of a violent phase of the War of 1812 known as the Creek War. My colleague Myers Brown wrote an excellent piece on the battle for the Tennessee State Library and Archives blog featuring some unique archival items related to the battle. I highly encourage you to read Myers' article on the TSLA Blog to learn more about this important moment in Tennessee history and the history of our nation. To supplement this story, I thought I would share an edited excerpt from my book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which addresses a little-known outcome of the battle.

Andrew Jackson's defeat of the Red Sticks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend proved devastating for the Creek Indians, and led to the eventual demise of one of Jackson's most bitter rivals, John Sevier. Sevier and Jackson were bitter enemies, yet they stood united in their mutual disdain for the British and their Native American allies. On June 4, 1812, Sevier joined seventy-eight of his congressional colleagues and voted for a formal declaration of war against Great Britain. In a letter written to Tennessee governor Willie Blount following the vote, Sevier conveyed his feelings on the matter. He declared, "We have at length passed the Ribicon. War is finally declared against Britain and her dependencies." Sevier's letter burned with hatred toward the enemy, especially the Creek Indians, whom he believed the British supported. "Fire and sword must be carried into that country before those wretches will be reduced to reason or become peaceable neighbors," Sevier raged. He continued, "There can be no reliance or trust placed in them. No doubt British emissaries are among them." Anti-British sentiment ran high in Tennessee, and rumors of a growing Creek presence along Tennessee's borders armed with British weaponry only served to fan the flames of war even higher.
Creek chief William "Red Eagle" Weatherford surrenders to Andrew Jackson on August 9, 1814, ending the Creek War. Tennessee Historical Society Collection, Tennessee State Library and Archives

Jackson's militia laid waste to the Red Sticks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, and following the victory and Creek surrender, President James Madison appointed Sevier as a commissioner to run the boundary line of the new Creek Nation. In agreeing to the terms of the treaty, the Creeks ceded more than 20 million acres of territory in southern Georgia and central Alabama to their nation's conquerors. Despite his lingering bitterness toward Jackson over their previous encounters, Sevier accepted the appointment and departed his plantation home near Knoxville on June 10, 1815, to begin what would be his final expedition.

Sevier made several entries in his diary following his departure. Although these consisted mostly of mundane observations about the weather and provisions, by August, the summer heat and the arduous journey began to take its toll on his aged body. On August 26, 1815, Sevier noted, "Some unwell with pain in my back." By September 9th, he observed that one of his traveling companions became "very sick." In the days that followed, Sevier himself contracted a fever. A few days later, he breathed his last breath. On September 24, 1815, Sevier died in his tent on the Creek boundary, ironically as duty called him to survey territory conquered by his most bitter rival, Andrew Jackson.

On March 29, 1889, years after his death, the Daily Picayune newspaper of New Orleans printed the legend that emerged from that dark day:

There is a pretty story still told around the firesides in this country of how Governor Sevier came to his death. He was attending a feast of the Indians known as the "Green Corn Dance," and although nearly 72 years of age, was there participating in the festivities of the evening. The next day, while on his return to Fort Decatur, he was taken suddenly sick, and while being carried across the Tallapoosa river, and feeling that he was dying, he said to his attendants that if they would carry him to a big spring about a mile away and let him get a drink of the water he thought he would get well. But he died while crossing the river, and his body was buried on top of the hill overlooking the big spring to which he had referred, and whose waters still sing a constant requiem near his grave.

Sevier's companions buried him with military honors on a spot of land not far from where he fell ill, on the east bank of the Tallapoosa River near Fort Decatur, Alabama. A simple two-foot-long oak stump charred at its end marked his grave. Unaware of Sevier's illness, Tennesseans had reelected him to Congress without opposition a few weeks prior. News of his death, however, quickly spread to the state capitol where members of the Tennessee General Assembly mourned their fallen hero. On October 26, 1815, state senator Adam R. Huntsman offered a resolution that each member of the legislature wear a crepe on the left arm for thirty days "in honor to the memory of that distinguished fellow citizen, statesman, and patriot."

Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.